Vishy: A ‘cut’ above the rest

What the hell is he up to?
Seems he’s calling him back.
He’s lost it.
Then they would have buried their face in their hands.
What the crowd wouldn’t have known back then — maybe not even now — was that the real import of the moment lay in the future, in the irretrievable essence of something gone.
But we’ll come to that in a while. More pressing emotions were at play out there in the middle at the Wankhede that day; Robert William Taylor’s obvious annoyance, for instance.
Bob Taylor was angry. England were on their knees, their top order blown away; and now the umpire had got into the act. It galled him the most that there was nothing much he could do about it.
It was 1980 and the umpire’s human finger was still the infallible warrant for exit; decision reviews were unheard of in those days of black-and-white television.
As the crowd looked on, a man in a floppy hat walked up to Taylor.
Did you nick that, he appeared to ask the England wicketkeeper.
No, replied Taylor.
Gundappa Ranganath Viswanath nodded, then walked up to the umpire.
We are withdrawing our appeal, he said.
And so it came to pass that Taylor, doughty Englishman from Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, hung on at one end as Ian Botham wrenched the one-off Jubilee Test Match away from India.
Generosity had seldom backfired so spectacularly.
England, five down at 58 and then let off at 85 for six, made 296, a 54-run first innings lead handy enough for an easy 10-wicket win.
Reprieve comes in many forms, sometimes as a game-changing second chance that redeems the reprieved and the repriever from the purported clockwork of providence. It takes something special to halt the clock.
“For me the spirit of the game is more important than winning or losing a Test,” Viswanath would tell journalists many years later, long after he had exited the ring of fond devotion. “Obviously, as captain, you play hard to win. But there are times when it’s your inner call that tells you what is right.”
Those who remember Viswanath’s gesture that February day would say it was as natural to him as his game. Here was a man who played by his conscience. Were he to nick one, he would walk on his own. Were he to be undone by an error of judgement, he would walk still, a gentleman exemplar of sportsmanship. Not for him ungainly dissent; the sullen precursor of modern-day referrals, cricket’s version of instant karma or absolution. Play was a slice of life, it all evened out in the end.
But why write about somebody largely forgotten these days?
The idea came from a much younger friend, or rather the casual disdain the young often look at with at a generation gone. “I don’t rate Viswanath very high,” the friend had said the other day as a discussion on the just-concluded World Cup 2019 turned inevitably to the game’s past masters. “He was inconsistent.”
Sport, exacting chronicler of genius and mediocrity, has its own gold standard. Greatness isn’t guaranteed even to the finest.
But the friend was right in a way. A batting average of 41.93 is hardly statistics of greatness. Anything in the early forties in cricket is a crowded corridor, like travel by the Tube. Nobody notices anyone.
But occasionally on the Tube, there are people who stand out. Viswanath did an unobtrusively diminutive maestro among a motley chorus.
It began one winter day many years ago, though few would recollect. For one, many of those who might have remembered have moved on. Time doesn’t wait upon the living.
Then, greater things had taken place that year. Man landed on Moon; Woodstock happened, and half a million in America marched against the Vietnam war.
Into this momentous calendar one day in 1969, a young man, barely twenty, walked out bat in hand in Kanpur, the weight of a scoreless first innings heavy on his mind. By the time he was done, Viswanath had 137 runs to his name.
This November, it would be half a century since a young star had dazzled up on the collective consciousness of a nation.
More important than Viswanath’s debut hundred, India were out of the woods against Bill Lawry’s visiting Australians. That was a recurring statistic through the thirteen more hundreds he made, hardly a smorgasbord array of mind-boggling choice, but India never lost a Test match where Viswanath had scored a century.
Some of them were chef’s special — 124 against the West Indies at Chennai, Madras then, on a bouncy pitch (January 1979); 113 at Lord’s (August 1979); 114 against Dennis Lillee and Len Pascoe at Melbourne (February 1981); not to forget the 112 in the epic run chase a few years earlier in Trinidad (April 1976).
From star to idol was a short step, the adulation sealed in the transition from Viswanath to “Vishy”.
Another “Vishy”, master of the chessboard Viswanathan Anand, has since succeeded to the abbreviated mantle of adoration but, for the older generation, Vishy meant the man with the fabled wrists.
Old folks would remember, how the bat had angled down that day long time ago, back foot bent in imperceptible courtesy. The square cut is to cricket what a moment is to a climax: a fraction before or after can be fatal.
Few have played the cut as Viswanath has done, cricket’s counter to what the arabesque brings to ballet. Those who have watched Viswanath bat would also remember another stroke he made his own — the square drive, knee and turf in fleeting touch as the ball bulleted away.
A ringing endorsement came from the other “Little Master”, Sunil Gavaskar, his friend, colleague, brother-in-law and partner-in-nomenclature. “I have seen situations when we all struggled, but Vishy would score off the good deliveries. The rest of us, we thought we could keep out the good balls and score off the bad ones. But Vishy, he had four-five strokes to the good balls that were bowled to him,” Gavaskar told the website ESPNcricinfo in 2007.
It’s a tribute that sits well on the unassuming little man from Karnataka, years after he has stepped out of white flannels and into virtual septuagenarian oblivion.
A riveting masterclass from his blade came in January 1975 against the West Indies. An unbeaten 97 in Chennai against an attack that included Andy Roberts.
Anyone who has faced the Antiguan in his prime in those helmetless days would tell you the line between risk and ruin was truly fine.

Wisden, cricket’s venerable Bible, ranked the innings the second finest non-century.
An intriguing thought springs to mind. Would three more runs have guaranteed similar commendation?
Irrelevant really. Records gather and tumble in the lengthening annals of sport, only a few stand out in their sheer magnitude. It’s the manner of play that remains in memory; a sliced drop shot, an insane dribble or a beguiling late cut.

It was Viswanath’s effortless cut that got a whole generation hooked. Boys, now well into tubby middle age, have grown up shadow-practising the square cut and the late cut in front of the privacy of bedroom mirrors. Some, including this writer, even thought they had become reasonably adept. Good the delusion ended early.
Yet, Viswanath could be maddeningly inconsistent. Often he has charmed to deceive, a strolled thirty terminated in the sudden clatter of stumps.
Example: G.R. Viswanath b Norbert Phillip 32 (Eden Gardens, 1979). Exasperation has sundry shapes.
Or, at Adelaide, 1981, bowled Pascoe 16, after three boundaries.
That was a fear that hung heavy on the minds of devotees of Vishwanath every time he went out to bat. The fear that it might be over too soon.
A wretched image harks back from the past. New Jersey, June 1988. Michael Spinks sprawled on the ground. It had taken Mike Tyson all of 91 seconds to knock Spinks out, enough time for a first-ball sendoff.
Only the truly devoted would have felt this kind of angst.
An involuntary prayer would form on the lips of his fans as Viswanath reached the crease. As the word Suzanne had formed, like an incantation, on the lips of Len Cohen many years ago.
Through riveted eyes you saw him take guard. Time paused. Time passed. Time unravelled. And then you thanked yourself for just being there, willing even to travel blind.

Fear had faded into the blur of an impeccable caress.

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Gladiatorial combat versus Shakespearean drama

The moment had come and gone, inexorably as it turned out.

Those who were at The Oval that day many years ago would tell you they could have heard a pin drop. Minutes earlier a man with back-brushed hair under dark cap had jogged down the pavilion steps, his approaching 40 years light on his loose white flannels.

Now he was walking back, bat under his left arm, peeling his gloves off as he had done so many times before but agonisingly early this time.

“Silence, absolute silence…,” came the commentator’s voice as Don Bradman exited the beguiling stage.

It was August 1948. Bradman, less than a fortnight away from his 40th birthday, had just been bowled for a duck in what would be his final Test match innings, departed forever from the arena like an ache that precedes emptiness, so pre-eminently dominant he was.

Four more runs would have ensured a never-before average of 100 but providence had resolved to hold back just that much.

Thirty-nine years later, another of the game’s biggest centurions was on the brink of another hundred, grinding out a palpitating struggle towards victory, when a hush fell on the ground.

March 1987, Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bangalore. Sunil Gavaskar was on 96 — and India deep into rearguard retrieve against Imran Khan’s Pakistan — when the umpire’s finger went up on the Little Master and the collective expectancy of the nation.

You could have heard a pin drop then too as the import sank in; the series was no longer for the taking. And so it turned out to be.

There is something about memory and the present; they invariably knock hand in glove, like partners in reminiscence.

The two images from the past — one seen on YouTube over and over again, the other both heard and seen — kept coming back as the 2019 Cricket World Cup got under way last month.

The irony is hard to miss: the boundary that eluded The Don and Sunny is the unexceptional norm here; a strolled elegant single barely tolerable.

Sooner than later, you would expect, the pounding to begin; only occasionally, more rare than occasional, would guile get one to slip past the marauding blade. Then the barrage would begin again, as if the game’s genome had already been mapped and sequenced in fours and sixes. Like those that cannoned off Chris Gayle’s explosive bat that Friday, May 31, the World Cup’s second match.

Three sixes and six fours had barrelled off the Jamaican’s blade that day. “If you want to get going, bring on Gayle,” someone lathered it on social media.

Were cricket ever to be held up as a metaphor, it must be as a counterpoint. If the modern limited-overs game is breathless affray, more akin to the gladiatorial combats of ancient Rome, the five-day act is a battle of attrition or redemption, much as in the high drama of Shakespeare and Sophocles where the end unravels as in life, not always apparent but possible nevertheless.

The game’s shorter version has a riveting pull to it, but it’s the lure of ceaseless action, not the subtle compatibility of the desultory and the dynamic.

It is in the turns, decisions taken or declined, not immediately discernible, where life’s caprice plays out. Or in the second chance that it offers sometimes but passed over often.

One name springs to mind; Steve Waugh at Eden Gardens 2001. Australia, at its seeming apogee of empire, India at its nadir, when Waugh, superstar captain of an all-conquering team, invited the hosts to follow on.

Enter V.V.S. Laxman, wristy and elegant, perhaps a shade laidback, but exquisitely perfect at the point of execution.

There was a tide in the affairs of the game and Laxman, as Brutus advises Cassius in Julius Caesar, had taken it at the flood. The rest, as they say, is history.

Who would have thought that when the Indian openers walked out to bat again that day, 270 runs adrift, Waugh’s invite would trigger a spectacular turnaround? It would halt Australia’s 16-match triumphant run and eventually their bid to conquer the final frontier.

Seldom has a back-to-the-wall fightback produced such a masterpiece of revival. If the previous Test — the first of the three-match series — was annihilation at Thermopylae, to lift an example from the boondocks of history, this has to be cricket’s Battle of Salamis.

Fate has its own way of reasserting itself. Like it did long back in the fabled realms of Thebes. Things might have turned out different had Oedipus, prophecy’s fugitive and decoder of the Sphinx’s riddle, spurned the kingdom on immediate offer and a queen much older.

A lasting legacy of the Eden match has been that teams now think twice before enforcing the follow-on.

It is not that the game’s one-day act is bereft of quirks of fortune. Mike Gatting’s reverse sweep in the 1987 Cup final against Allan Border’s Australia was much more than desertion of individual sangfroid. It cost his side the game’s ultimate chalice that has till now eluded England. That wait would be prolonged four more years if Eoin Morgan’s team fails to deliver this time.

Younger viewers would remember another instance: in 1999, when Herschelle Gibbs “dropped” Waugh and, in hindsight, maybe the cup too.

Retribution — or reward — is suddener in the 50-over version. It’s the five-day game that comes closest if play is a synonym for life. In the luxury it offers for rumination and leisured pursuit.

Or even in the choice not to press ahead.

Doff your hat, folks, to one man who did that. If ever a sabre sheathed in full flow won the battle for transcendence, it was Mark Taylor, the former Aussie captain, who declared when he was on 334 in deference to The Don.

Sixty-eight years earlier, in 1930, Bradman had made 334 at Leeds. It remained his personal best in Tests.

Test cricket — like life — does offer such scope to step aside, in between moments that come and go.

When the grail was (briefly) regained

Some things are hard to forget. A girl’s smiling eyes, for instance, and how they hinted at an indefinable sorrow. As if they had long seen death was near.

Or the synchronized ballet of a hundred and fifty thousand soldiers whose success hinged on the perfect concert of land, sky, sea and stealth.

Anne Frank’s fifteen-year-old fingers were still writing the story of her life in her diary, seemingly safe in her hiding place in an Amsterdam building, when Allied forces began their invasion of Normandy. 

History’s largest amphibious assault — timed to coincide with favourable weather and lunar phases — would liberate Paris from its German occupiers and go on to change the course of the Second World War.

It was June 6, 1944. D-Day had started with air attacks and naval bombardments on the northern coast of France as part of Operation Overlord. The final count of men pressed into this mission would eventually cross two million, soldiers drawn from the United States, Britain, Canada, the Free French Forces and a host of other countries, war rations in their backpacks with cigarettes for respite.

“They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt had said in a ringing radio broadcast.

The world had united against a rogue worldview of destructive revenge, exclusion by race and birth and notions of supremacy; toxic mix that can turn even love to bile.

Today, seventy-five years on, maybe it’s time to ponder if the men who hurled themselves against Erwin Rommel’s “Atlantic Wall” — a 2,400-mile fortification of bunkers and landmines — had succeeded in their pursuit of the elusive grail of freedom.

By early August, however, Anne Frank had lost her own freedom, yanked from her secret shelter by German police and locked up in a concentration camp along with other Jews like her. A few months later, possibly sometime in early 1945, she was dead. One more numbered victim of the Holocaust. 

Her diary, written between 1942 and 1944, her own private thoughts on her life in hiding under German occupation of the Netherlands; words she would cover with her hands at the slightest hint of intrusion, lay behind to be salvaged later.

Anne Frank had dug deep into her young heart but, faced with the pitiless indifference of the universe, had resigned to posterity her compelling voice of liberty in suffering.

A few hundred miles away, “liberty” had already burst like a “bomb” on the land of Bonaparte about a year and a half earlier — not on the field of war but on the willing complacence of subjugated Paris.  

Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play, The Flies, an adaptation of an ancient Greek tragedy, premiered in the summer of 1943, as the chain-smoking writer-philosopher dodged past his Nazi censors to put on stage situations he said threw light on aspects of the human condition.

Sartre wove in themes like commitment, resistance, choice and freedom in the allegorical play where the flies, or the avenging Furies, torment Orestes, the central character, for his refusal to accept guilt and feel remorse.

Orestes had murdered his mother, Queen Clytemnestra, and the present king, Aegisthus, to avenge his father Agamemnon’s murder. Zeus, the controlling god of human destiny, demands that he repent but Orestes refuses, thus taking responsibility for his actions. He eventually leaves the city of Argos, the tormenting Furies after him, a kind of Pied Piper-like figure who makes a conscious choice, embraces his freedom to choose and takes upon himself the real or imagined sins of his people.

Few would have missed what Sartre was trying to convey in those fraught times when German and Vichy propaganda was urging the French to submit.

“It was impossible to mistake the play’s implications; the word Liberty, dropped from Orestes’s mouth, burst on us like a bomb,” feminist writer and intellectual Simone de Beauvoir had said of the play.

It was still more than a year to go before the tide would turn in the war. By August-end 1944, Paris had been liberated and the Germans driven from northwestern France, effectively wrapping up the Normandy invasion.

In the following year — on May 8, 1945 — Nazi Germany formally surrendered. Adolf Hitler had committed suicide a week earlier, on April 30. 

A few months later, in August, two devastating bombs would change the political and economic alignment of the world. Freedom would be in peril again. It is in this context that Anne Frank, the Normandy invasion and Sartre’s play need to be seen today.

So what links the three, apart from their proximity in time and a shared backdrop? A girl who dreamt of becoming a journalist but died young; soldiers, many barely out of their teens, who charged into machinegun fire as they breached the Atlantic Wall, and a public intellectual who insisted on a way of life he defined as authenticity. 

Each played their part in the struggle for freedom, like many before them and after, from the astronomer Galileo who chose personal humiliation to save science from the convenience of visible illusion, to the revolutionary Che who fought to free a land different from that of his birth and died in another.

History works in subliminal ways; countless acts recorded on time’s expanding canvas have gone unnoticed in the actors’ lifetime, overlooked perhaps for posthumous recognition.

The Diary of Anne Frank, an expression of the individual mind in adversity, is an example of that.

“Of all the multitudes who throughout history have spoken for human dignity in times of great suffering and loss, no voice is more compelling than that of Anne Frank,” John F. Kennedy had said of her in a 1961 speech.

Some, like the Invasion of Normandy, have drilled themselves into instant memory as turning points in history.

Others have been subtle, like Sartre’s play, in their push for choice and freedom, both collective and individual.

Years later, sometime in the sixties, President Charles de Gaulle must have recognised how important that was when he ordered Sartre’s release after the writer’s arrest for civil disobedience.

“You don’t arrest Voltaire,” the French President had reportedly said.

Surely, there’s a message in that too.

To Icarus the Unsung

Spare a thought for Icarus too.

Think of what he must have gone through — he was just a boy — his wings of wax melted, the sea rushing up from below as he hurtled down from the sky, bereft of the air’s buoyancy.

The fabled high-flier from Greek mythology had flown too close to the sun in a moment of foolhardy daring that an older man, his father, master craftsman Daedalus, had counselled against.

The future, with its retrospective wisdom, has been somewhat unkind to Icarus. Now, aeons after his impatient ascent became forever associated with excessive ambition and hubris, maybe, maybe, it’s time for a fresh assessment; more so when the world is about to celebrate next month one hundred years of another audacious flight.

Back then too, on June 14, 1919, two young men were getting impatient. The Great War was over, at least on paper; the guns had fallen silent in the sullen trenches of the Western Front and the time had come to test new limits. It was afternoon and ahead on the route lay the vast expanse of the Atlantic.

So impatient were John Alcock and Arthur Brown that while their competitors checked and rechecked their flights, the two — both former British military pilots — got into the cockpit and took off, for what would be the world’s first non-stop transatlantic flight.

Alcock, 26, and Brown, 32, were on their way. At stake was a place in history and a £10,000 prize on offer from the Daily Mail of London for the first to cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane. The condition was contestants had to take off from any point in the United States of America, Canada or Newfoundland and land in Great Britain or Ireland in 72 consecutive hours.

Human passion for flying had taken a long, big — and eventually triumphant — leap since the Wright Brothers, Americans Orville and Wilbur, tested their rudimentary machine a decade back.

It was a difficult takeoff for Alcock and Brown. The Vickers Vimy bumped on rough ground as it gathered speed before its wheels lifted and the modified World War I bomber lumbered into the air, barely clearing the treetops ahead.

Wikipedia gives an account of how tough it was. The wind-driven electrical generator failed; an exhaust pipe burst shortly afterwards; they had to fly blind through thick fog, and twice the aircraft nearly hit the sea.

Next morning, on June 15, they crash-landed in a bog in County Galway, Ireland, not far from their intended landing place, after about sixteen hours of flying time. Neither Alcock nor Brown was hurt. The two had flown 3,040km at an average speed of 185kmph.

“Yesterday I was in America, and I am the first man in Europe to say that,” Alcock had reportedly said after the flight. Forgivable exuberance after such triumph of human dare.

Many centuries ago a Carthaginian general called Hannibal Barca too had dared when he took his bellowing war elephants across the mountains in a failed bid to humble Rome. If it was the Alps in 218 BC, it was the Atlantic in June 1919.

In six months, Alcock was dead, killed in a flying accident in December that year.

In less than eight years, another young man, Charles Lindbergh, would overtake Alcock’s and Brown’s record when he flew — solo — from New York to Paris, covering the 33-and-a-half-hour, 5,800km flight in his single-engine monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis.

Time does not stop for moments of individual triumph or tragedy.

The Old Masters, as W.H. Auden would say in his poem Musee des Beaux Arts, understood it very well.

In Breughels Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster…” Auden would write in 1938 of the painting.

“…the sun shone/ As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green/ Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,/
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Even the boy’s father had continued with his flight, his grief-burdened wings carrying him on to Sicily and to literary immortality as James Joyce’s fictional hero Stephen Dedalus.

The son remained in the pages of mythology a symbol of artistic revolt and self-destructive ambition.

Maybe, it’s time for a fresh look. Someone has to raise the bar of defiance for others to draw the line.

Check, mate and a moment of grace

The air was thick with intrigue that April day in Germany. A relentless field marshal, young in age but seasoned in triumph, had just deployed his foot soldiers deep into enemy territory. At stake was the crown — and an expansion of empire.

Another battle was on in the land of the Third Reich, supposed claimant and progeny of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy.

But this battle was different.

Many years later, when historians hark back to the heavy thud of imperial boots, the story of that April contest in Germany would stand out; not because of the terrible beauty that an Irish poet had foreseen but for its endgame of courtesy.

Let’s go back a bit. It’s April 28, 2019, Baden-Baden, Germany. On one side was a young man with Hollywood good looks. Magnus Carlsen, from Norway, the flamboyant reigning superstar of chess.

On the other side of the board was grandmaster Peter Svidler, a 42-year-old from Russia.

The Grenke Chess Classic was in its homestretch and Carlsen, 28, was, well, romping home as usual.

No, this is not about Carlsen, he is just a metaphor, rather a master practitioner of a metaphor — a 64-square battleground where no blood is drawn. The victor merely “mates” the vanquished.

That April day, the victor grinned, the vanquished smiled and victory and defeat were sealed with a handshake.

For Carlsen, it was a heady win. Two black pawns, expendable proletariat of the game, pushed towards Svidler’s king in a pincer thrust.

The white king, trapped in imminent defeat, has nowhere to run.

Carlsen moves one of the pawns further up. Check!

Svidler’s king sidles right.

The second black pawn steps up. Check! And mate!

Didn’t Svidler see the mate coming?

Of course, he did. But he allowed himself to be mated. Had he resigned, Carlsen couldn’t have checkmated his opponent, though the Norwegian, the reigning world chess champion, would still have won.

For the record books, Carlsen — 1.

For the intangible register of courtesy, Svidler — 1.

Chess, the ultimate cerebral war where the sting of defeat can burn for years on the slow fire of humiliation, had bequeathed for posterity an exemplary image.

Magnus played very well…,” Svidler said in a post-match interview.

It was certainly a fun game today,” laughed Carlsen, but I can’t expect to win like that every game.”

Civility had returned, exactly a week after a mindless carnage had sought to sully the transcendental message of Resurrection — of a lonely man who died a lacerated death.

Over two hundred and fifty people were killed in suicide bombings in Sri Lanka on April 21, Easter Sunday, in a coordinated attack that targeted three churches and three luxury hotels. At least five hundred were injured.

Chess itself has come a long way, from those days of the Cold War when the board was a proxy battlefield for nuclear warheads that lay leashed in reluctant restraint.

That leash had nearly snapped in Fidel Castro’s Cuba in October 1962 before better sense prevailed.

That was a time when grandmasters; brilliant, brooding exponents of the game, would sometimes claim their rivals had brought along with them hidden hypnotists to work their spell.

If the bombs couldn’t bristle, the chessboard did.

Abiding images sometimes bring back abiding memories. The great Capablanca, the late Cuban world champion, had once reportedly told Savielly Tartakower, “You are lacking in solidity.”

Quick had come the retort from the Polish and French grandmaster. “That is my saving grace.”

At Baden-Baden too, what unfolded that Sunday after the mayhem on Easter was another moment of saving grace.

To Sir, with respect

As he walked down the lane that midwinter afternoon to the memorial service, suitably solemn, one thought kept coming back. How ridiculously easy it was to lighten one’s burden of gratitude.

But this is not an obit. You don’t write obituaries after four years when most have moved on from the personal loss of a handful of people who themselves must have moved on.

This is a tribute to a memory — a reminiscence rekindled by an unrelated item that made news earlier this summer in April.

St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta, it was reported, had figured among the top 10 colleges in India, according to the latest (2019) National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF).

Proud alumni rippled on social media, screenshots of the rank waltzed across continents on WhatsApp groups in the celebration of an idea that had lent Calcutta’s academia some stalwart men. Like Professor P. Lal, iconic high priest of higher literature; Professor Arindam Sen, eccentric and eagle-sharp, clenched fist over trademark cough, whose students still recall how they had been initiated into an entirely new subject called “Senonomics”. Or Father Albert Huart, faded blue shirt on grey trousers when not in his Jesuit’s robe, as tall and upright as they come, a man whose clipped accent accentuated his missionary aura.

No, this piece isn’t about any of them, walking colossuses though they were and now long exited from the intellectual stage. This is a personal tribute to a man who was more plinth than pinnacle. Professor Rohinton Kapadia died in January 2015 and, if anyone the college’s Department of English owes the most to its brand value today, it is him — a modest, unassuming man who had cradled and nudged an idea to its fruition and towards the NIRF’s wider if long-due acknowledgement of national endorsement. This write-up is about him.

But how do you begin about someone who is one huge reason this writer has achieved whatever little he has?

It’s difficult. Memories don’t travel down tramlines. If they did, writing reminiscences would have been easy.

It was the summer of ’86. A young man stood outside the St. Xavier’s College staff room waiting for a gentleman to turn his head. The few others in the near-empty room looked at him once before going back to what they were doing. Callow young men didn’t deserve a second glance.

The gentleman remained lost in a book.

Finally, he looked up. “Looking for me?” his eyes seemed to ask.

“Yes!” the young man nodded.

The gentleman gestured him inside. “Tell me.”

The young man told him. Poured his heart out, as much as his stutter would let him. He had just given his Class XII exams. Wanted to study English, loved to write, loved the language, but didn’t know where to begin. Then he lost his tongue.

“Start with Hardy,” the gentleman told him. “Come back after you have read at least two of his novels.”

That was Professor Kapadia — head of the department of English at St. Xavier’s and “Kapi” to his adoring students. Needless to say, the young man kept going back, and back, and back. First, for the three years that he studied English at St. Xavier’s and then the years he did his master’s.

What was it about Professor Kapadia that made students, long graduated and well into rotund middle age, return to meet someone who taught them years ago?

He was not one who strode the academic stage, like some of his contemporaries. Nor did he have the quirky gait that some men of academia are still remembered by — long after they have faded into the archives of student memory.

Professor Kapadia was dapper and dependable, of middling stature, deep observant eyes and an unhurried walk at ease with the world. It’s this ease that he brought to the classroom, a sober, thinking man who unwrapped, layer by layer, the veiled secrets of literature.

He was particularly good at something else too: he knew how to draw low-on-esteem underdogs out of their self-locked kennels. He would do that smiling, making you feel as if you were doing him a favour.

But make no mistake. The smile didn’t mean you could cross the line with Professor Kapadia. The young man, by then an MA student, did once, when he brought up the merits of another professor. Mind you, only the merits.

Swift came the warning. “I don’t discuss professors with my students.”

“Yes, Sir.” Point taken.

The next lesson — unspoken this time — came a few months later. The young man, now preparing for his MA exams, needed reference material.

“Keep these books till the exams are over,” Professor Kapadia told him one day, handing over a couple. “You’ll need them.”

The pile grew and grew, till it crossed two dozen. The books were from his personal collection. If you want to help, open your heart and fist.

He taught us Lord Jim. Somewhere — between his classroom lectures and staff-room remove — he had morphed into Marlow, Joseph Conrad’s empathetic narrator, to the “Lord Jims” hanging on his every word.

No wonder, so many of these by-now established “Lord Jims” turned up for his memorial service, different in years, varied in their waistlines, but all bound by a shared memory — of Freud made simpler, Lawrence unravelled or a fascinating glimpse of Joyce and Bergson.

The older ones among them were fortunate to have got Professor Lal but missed Bertram Da Silva. The younger ones missed Professor Lal but got “Bertie”, the brilliant, versatile musician-professor with a rock-star appeal.

Professor Kapadia was the constant. A man who shaped young minds, introducing them to the delectable inscrutability of existentialism as he drew them out of their shells.

The memorial sevice had ended. A low hum had broken out in the buzz of renewed acquaintances as people stepped out into the comfortable late-afternoon sun. How ridiculously easy it is to lighten the burden of collective gratitude.